Chapter 5: Get Back On Your Feet
I have photographed every type of couple (both personality wise and culturally speaking) and in every kind of weather imaginable. I have had 5-6 decidedly dissatisfied or unhappy couples out of 400+ wedding days covered over a period of 10 years. So that statistic is by no means a failure. And while each of those took me a few days to recover from emotionally and mentally, the first few taught me super valuable lessons for the future and the last taught me that sometimes you can do EVERYTHING right and still you were just not a good match for that couple from the start and you would never have been able to make them happy.
It is that last incident I would like to discuss now. Back in late summer of 2015, as I was going through my email inbox, my heart suddenly dropped. I had recieved an email from a bride whose elopement I had photographed a week or so earlier who was VERY unhappy with her wedding photos. Like... in tears unhappy.
The thing is, having unhappy clients feels unacceptable to me on a personal level. I want with every fiber of my being to do an outstanding job for every. single. one. of the couples I work with. It is their wedding day! Cannot be re-done. I show up and do my work rain or sun, back-aches or flu season doesn't matter. If I can stand on my feet I am there. I want them to have a fantastic time working with me and I want to deliver high quality photos.
So to get an email like that felt like a punch in the stomach and for days I couldn't fall asleep at night. I felt like I should never pick up my camera ever again. The thought of having disappointed someone, the thought of a kind and sweet woman out there who felt miserable when looking at her wedding photos, crippled me. It didn't even matter at that point that they apparently did not plan to pay the second half of their invoice. I am not a hard-core business woman, I am a normal person who has turned my creative impulses into a job. I am a sensitive creative who takes my job very (and often too) seriously. This bride and I had a completely different perspective of what was going on. I knew that I had covered their wedding day with the same focus and approach that I do every other wedding day and delivered images of the same quality as I always do. But she felt that I had "skipped corners" and not been paying attention. She blamed me for not seeing that her (very big beautiful curly) hair had come undone a little on one side, she was disappointed that her white bra showed a little in one photo and that there was a bug on her dress in another. The bra and bug I fixed in a matter of minutes in photoshop and immediately replaced the old with the new retouched images. But it wasn't enough. She was crying and felt I had let her down.
The whole situation utterly confused me because we had had a wonderful time during the shoot, and she was a genuinely lovely person to be around.
So how do we move on from a situation like this? Because however utterly horrible the situation is for both the bride/couple and you, there are dozens of other clients who feel enriched and thankful because of the photos you have created for them on their wedding day, and there are new couples expecting you to perform at your best in the future too. Wallowing in self-pity and punishing ourselves is an option but it leads to fear and a stand still. So this is what I force myself to do instead, and what I encourage you to do, should a similar situation arise in your future:
First, if the client has any specific requests that I can actually do something about, I do that of course, as in the case above. No questions asked. (Turning a b/w edited photo into a colour version, or removing a blemish in photoshop falls under this category too)
Second, do some serious soul searching. Could you have done anything differently? Did you do anything differently from what you usually do and that your happy dream clients love you for? This goes for both the service you provide before, during and after the wedding day, as well as the photos themselves. For the first, look through your email correspondance, your portfolio and the text on your website. Do you properly communicate who you are and how you work from start to finish, so the client knows what to expect? For the latter, look at two things, quality and content. Does the technical quality and use of light meet your normal standards, are they as beautiful as they possible can be under the circumstances you were given? And have you captured heartfelt authentic moments and emotions?
Get some objective eyes on the problem. Ask at least one other person who knows you well and know the general standard of your work, to critique the collection of photographs in question. Don't ask someone who will just try to be kind and sympathetic and flatter you. Ask someone you trust and ask for brutal honesty.
Your impulse may be to write the client back immidiately. You might feel like this is a real crisis. You may feel like noone will ever want to work with you again if word gets around. While it is of course prudent to respond to clients quickly in general, when it comes to any sort of negative correspondence, I strongly advise that you wait at least a day to respond. If you email back right away while you are in the middle of an emotional tailspin, odds are it will only fuel the conflict because you will take everything way too personally. A bit of distance will most likely clear your head and make you able to respond in a polite and constructive language and tone, and enable you to see solutions instead of chaos and criticism.
Finally, there is nothing left but to meditate on it, take the lesson that was in the experience, forgive yourself for not being perfect, and let it go, make peace with it.
“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”
- Denis Waitley
In this specific case I can honestly say that I enjoyed the hours I spent with this client and their families and that during those hours it seemed like they enjoyed their time with me too, there was a good connection there and a positive spirit. I also delivered a gallery of images that I stand by and would proudly put on my website and blog any day of the week. My conclusion was that it was a question of being a bad fit for one another.
There was nothing wrong with the images just as there was absolutely nothing wrong with the client's complaints. We just weren't a perfect match for their wedding day.
The darn thing is that it was too late, the wedding day was over, and I couldn't change it or go back in time. It is a very heavy responsibility to be a wedding photographer. And as heartbreaking as it is to disappoint a client, it will happen eventually and probably also more than once.
But if you do your very best every single time, if you can be real with yourself and ask the right questions when something doesn't go according to plan, and if you have the guts to put yourself out there as honestly as possible so you attract the clients who fall head over heels in love with you and with their images, you will be stronger for it, and your message and your art will grow stronger and sharper year by year.